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Oliver’s Big Move: Local & Organic Go Up to Windsor


Oliver’s Big Move: Local & Organic Go Up to Windsor

By Jonah Raskin

Sometimes a food story is more than just a place where you shop, pay, then take your groceries and lug them home. Sometimes a food store is a kind of emporium that brings the wide world into your own world and expands your universe. Indeed, sometimes it’s an ice cream parlor, a pub and a bakery, too.

Such a place is Oliver’s Market that accentuates local food and local people and that’s about making the nitty-gritty connections that are necessary to create a thriving community.

Right now, Oliver’s — which started very small in Cotati decades ago — is going through big growing pains. Even those who aren’t directly affected by the opening of the new Oliver’s in Windsor feel the buzz and the sense of elation.

Mike Schuster certainly does. Still, after 27 years in the same job, he’s perfectly happy to stay in the fruit and vegetable department at the Cotati branch.

The spanking new Oliver’s — a 34,000 square-foot food palace on Old Redwood Highway in Windsor that was five years in the making — boasts a produce department with local and organic vegetables and fruits that would make most green grocers green with envy. 

Like the three Oliver’s markets already in existence, the Windsor store has a salad bar, an olive bar, a taqueria and a gourmet cheese department. Unlike its sister stores, however, it has a tavern with artisan beers and ales and a distinctive dining area where you can enjoy a beverage — alcoholic or non-alcoholic — and sit down to a real meal.

Schuster lives so close to Oliver’s in Cotati that he can go home for lunch, a good reason not to head north to Windsor. A local guy who likes to sell local produce, Schuster is a kind of walking talking local history book. As a young man growing up in Sonoma County, he worked in the Sebastopol canneries when Gravenstein’s were the king of the apple crop. His mother worked in the canneries, too. It was a family thing. When Oliver’s opened in Cotati he applied for a job and was hired right away. Now, he’s a kind of legend: the old timer who won’t quit and who won’t be fired, either. Oliver’s respects its workers.

“When we started with organic produce, a lot of the stuff went bad and we had to throw it away,” Schuster said. “Now we can’t get enough of organic, and, while you pay more for it than you do for conventional, it’s worth the price, especially if you care about what you put into your body.”

Mike Petersen manages the produce department in all four stories. He buys top quality local and organic vegetables and fruits; he has also assembled a talented team of green grocers. Jeritt Skelton is one of them. Young and lively, he’s the assistant produce manager at the Oliver’s in Windsor, where he has created a farmers’ market environment and where he also highlights local growers.

 “I have to use my head all the time to make decisions about what to buy or not buy,” Skelton said. “Right now I’m ordering Parsons’ tomatoes that are grown in Santa Rosa and that we’ll sell for $2.99 a pound. That’s a real deal.”

Born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley — in the “heart of ag business territory” as he calls it — Skelton sees organic produce as the wave of the future.

“Consumers drive the organic food and produce movement,” he said. “We give them what they want. It feels good to sell a clean, wholesome product and I’m excited about the opening of the new Oliver’s.”

Indeed, the Windsor store is giving nearly everyone a sense of excitement. That includes Steve Maass, Oliver’s founder and president, and Tom Scott, the chief executive officer.

Both of them were on hand for the grand opening, a weeklong event that felt like a huge food festival, especially with the free samples, including cupcakes and ice cream.

Maass, who was born in L.A. in the 1940s — the era of TV dinners, Wonder Bread and canned ravioli — remembers the Sixties as a time when he sold fruit on the side of the road, and when, as he puts it, he “wanted to change the world.”

He still has his youthful idealism and his sense of mission. He knows, too, more than ever before, that to change the world you have to be sustainable financially. “You can’t do anything if you don’t make money,” he said as he stood in the thick of the produce department with Huy Ma, who was born in Vietnam and who has worked at Oliver’s since 1988.

“Whatever Steve does, he will make it work, Huy said, “I learned from him how to buy good produce.” At times, the store can feel like a food shed in which diversity, both culinary and ethnic, is its watchword.

 BTW, “Oliver" is Steve Maass’s middle name. No, there’s no allusion to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, the orphan boy, who cries out for “more” porridge and gets in trouble for doing so. Still, for nearly three decades, Maass and Scott have been crying out for more local produce. Local producers have heard the cry and have planted more crops and larger fields.

Maass and Scott have been an integral part of the food and farming renaissance in Northern California that still has no end in sight.

“We compliment one another,” Scott explained. “We’re both committed to local products which means a lot to many of our shoppers. About 25% of our revenue is from local.”

It made sense to both men to open a new store in Windsor; Scott figures that Windsor has the highest household income, by municipality, in Sonoma County.

“There has not been a store in Windsor that serves the needs of a great many of the people who live there,” Scott said. “We have a great deli department with gourmet products and our prices are compatible with Whole Foods and Safeway. Plus there will be all kinds of experts, from cheese mongers and wine mongers to vegetable mongers.”

Ricardo Ortiz, who once worked in produce at Oliver’s in Cotati, moved up to Windsor and he’s happy about the move.

“Years ago when people came into my department and saw the word ‘organic’ they would ask ‘What is that?’" Ortiz recalled. "Now, when they come into the store and don’t see organic produce right away they wanna know, ‘Where is it?’ What a big difference that one little word change has made!”

Now, with a fourth Oliver’s in Sonoma County, local, organic and natural will get a bigger boost than ever before.

         Perhaps no one is more excited about that prospect than Tim Page, the founder, visionary and workhorse at Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights, better known as F.E E.D., the food hub that connects growers to merchants and consumers. “Steve Maass, Tom Scott and everyone at Oliver’s are at a place where they can help greatly to write a new chapter in the local food system,” Page says. “They’re bringing little farms, some of them certified organic, into the market economy. At F.E.E.D. we’re doing everything we can to help on both ends of the system.”